The only stimulating thing about Gereon Wetzel's gastro-doc is the grub.
When German writer-director Gereon Wetzel started shooting a documentary about world-beating Catalonian restaurant El Bulli in 2008, did he know that its star, Ferran Adrià, was publishing a book of culinary secrets that year? The book offers insights into how to construct your own liquorice-infused jelly lasagne and pine nut marshmallows. The film shows us men in white coats mumbling about cherimoya and matsutake with little explanation about what’s actually going on.
The problem with El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is that its subjects are bent double over fragments of vacuumised vegetable, and the triple Michelin star-winning Adrià is withdrawn to the point of misanthropy. When his minions address him, he stares moodily into the middle distance.
When they offer him a morsel they’ve spent all morning preparing, he stares impassively at them for what seems like a minute before delivering his terse verdict. "It’s simply bad," he says of one experiment. "Don’t give me anything that’s not good."
There’s much to learn over the course of 100 minutes, and if you’re the sort who boils easy-cook pasta every day for lunch, the artistic rigour with which Adrià sculpts his dishes will come as a revelation. The narrative starts at the end of one season at the restaurant, with cutlery and appliances being shrink-wrapped, and ends at the beginning of the next. In between, Adrià and his team spend six months conducting ’research’ on new textures, combinations of flavours and ways of presenting it all.
There are rules. Last year, we learn, foam was forbidden, as Adrià previously pioneered the idea of turning unlikely foodstuffs into molecules of air. This season, certain tastes must be experimented with, like kaki (Japanese persimmon) and sweet potato, which is juiced, fried, emulsified, turned into biscuits, and finally makes it into the menu as a species of gnocchi. "At the moment," Adrià says from the testing kitchen, "what matters is whether something is magical and whether it opens up a new path." Later, he will work on making it actually taste good.
Oriol Castro opens up one new path when he tosses some ice onto his plate of gravy in a cheap restaurant, and comes up with the idea of a vinaigrette studded with ice pellets and served with mini tangerines. A French sommelier is credited with giving the team a fresh direction when he starts riffing on a spider diagram of scents he’s concocted. He talks about how cardamom and bergamot together smell like Muscat. Eucalyptus, fennel and yuzu (a sour Asian mandarin) are also discussed.
All this is tantalising; the full 30-course menu shown in stills at the end of the film – crystallised Parmesan, veal cartilage, pine seedlings, blossoms, bone marrow tartar – looks sublime. And it’s good that someone managed to document the secretive back rooms at El Bulli before it closed in July last year. But it’s a slow, repetitive work with too many shots that feel like filler. The food is artful. The film? Not so much.
A peek behind hallowed gastronomic doors? Yes please.
Chopping, frying, tasting... A snooze-bouche.
Yes, the food looks amazing. No, you won’t be buying a vacuumiser.